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What Cities Can Do To Improve Pedestrian Safety

By Aaron Crowe

Three major U.S. cities recently received $1.6 million from the federal government to improve pedestrian safety, but officials aren’t making pedestrians safer by making their cities more walkable. Instead, most of the money is being spent on ticketing dangerous drivers and monitoring crosswalks.

Of the three cities to receive the grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — Louisville, Philadelphia and New York City — New York City had the most pedestrians killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2012 with 127 such deaths that represented 47 percent of the city’s total traffic fatalities.

New York was awarded $805,801 and plans to use it to deal with speeding drivers who don’t yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. The city will target young men — the demographic most likely to be in pedestrian crashes — through social media and enforcement activities in high-crash areas.

While those three cities aren’t considered largely friendly to pedestrians, there are lessons to be learned from walkable cities that could be implemented elsewhere. Ticketing more drivers who endanger pedestrians may be a good short-term solution, but a long-term solution might be to use other methods to make cities safer to walk in.

Where the most walkable cities are

Nationally, only 2.8 percent of workers walk to work. But some cities have policies and planning efforts to make walking an everyday means of commuting.

Data in the Census Bureau’s American Communities Survey found that Cambridge, Mass., was the most walkable city with a population of at least 100,000, with 24.5 percent of its residents walking to work. It created an ideal environment for walking with densely populated neighborhoods, commercial district city squares, and multiple public transit lines spanning the city.

Other top large cities for walking commuters were Columbia, S.C., with 20.7 percent of workers walking; Berkeley, Calif. with 18.1 percent; Ann Arbor, Mich., and Boston, Mass., with 15.5 percent each; and Provo, Utah with 12.2 percent.

What makes a city walkable?

In Bloomington, Ind., where 16.2 percent of commuters walked to work in 2012, having Indiana University downtown is a big factor in getting more people walking, says Vince Caristo, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the city of 80,000. Seventy percent of the university’s faculty, staff and students live within three miles of the campus, making it an easy walk, Caristo says.

“University towns tend to have high rates of walking and biking,” he says.

But having a university in the center of a city isn’t the only thing that encourages walking. Major destinations, such as employment centers, in a central part of town can encourage short trips, Caristo says

Having a great transit system is another encouragement to walk, since commuters are likely to be open to walking short distances after taking public transit.

In Bloomington, the city’s zoning codes require sidewalks on both sides of almost every street that’s built by a developer, Caristo says. Developers are also required to build bike paths.

The most important thing cities can do to ensure pedestrian safety is traffic calming, says Dan Biederman, president of Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, which designs urban parks and streetscape.

Few people are killed if they’re hit by a car going 20 mph or slower. Pedestrians have a 90 percent chance of survival if a car hits them at 20 mph, compared to a 10 percent survival rate if hit at 40 mph, Caristo says.

To slow traffic, Biederman recommends having angled, on-street parking; eliminating one-way streets and arterials; and eliminating extra lanes that only encourage fast driving.

A cheap and easy way to improve pedestrian safety is to paint thick, white lines on downtown crosswalks to make them more visible, he says.

Bloomington is also looking into increasing the lead time pedestrians have over cars to enter a crosswalk a few seconds before a light turns green for cars to enter.

Fun reasons to walk

For Anne Dimon, founder of Travel to Wellness magazine, a city’s walkability has more than well-marked crosswalks. A part-time resident of Toronto, Dimon says the city’s multiculturalism makes it a fun place to walk.

“The thing that makes Toronto so appealing for residents and visitors who love to walk is the various multicultural neighborhoods that Toronto is famed for,” she says. “Little Italy, Chinatown, Greek Town and numerous others.”

Coffee shops, restaurants, theaters and other businesses that are typical in busy downtown areas and attract pedestrians also improve a city’s walkability.

The good news about pedestrian fatalities in traffic crashes is that they’ve remained flat during the past decade. According to the NHTSA, there were 4,774 pedestrian deaths in 2003 in traffic crashes, and 4,743 in 2012. That’s still a lot, with 14 percent of all traffic fatalities to pedestrians.

New York City, at least, is taking notice. The city is looking to Sweden for road safety tips, such as reducing speed limits and installing median barriers to separate two-way traffic in high-speed areas.

What Sweden isn’t doing much of — though New York and other cities do — is focus on education and enforcement of pedestrian safety. Jaywalking tickets and cards with safety tips may sound like good ways to stop pedestrians from getting hit by cars, but a speed bump and lower speed limits can do a lot more, the Swedes found.


Aaron Crowe is a journalist who covers the auto industry for